When Typists Were Feared as 'Love Pirates'

At the turn of the century, some women sued stenographers for seducing their husbands. An Object Lesson.

The actress Grace Kelly sitting at a table with a Remington typewriter
The actress Grace Kelly demonstrates the use of a Remington typewriter in 1950. (Bettmann / Getty )

In January of 1909, Una Goslin sued her husband’s stenographer, Anna Irene Magher, for “alienating her husband’s affections.” This particular premise for a lawsuit—stealing someone’s affections—fell under the umbrella of a larger body of civic legislation known as “heart balm.”

Heart balm sounds like a product for inconsolable teens weathering the fallout of their first breakups, or a late-night infomercial product made of extracts from rare flowers or pungent barks. However, heart balm is not an ointment or a salve, or even a balm. It’s not a product at all, but a legal tort of the turn of the 20th century commonly invoked by housewives against young, female stenographers.

Simply speaking, a tort is a civil wrong that produces legal liability. In the case of heart balm, the most common ways to wrong someone included seduction, breach of promise to marry, criminal conversation, and, yes, alienation of affections.

In Goslin’s case, she accused Magher of looking at her husband “longingly, lovingly, and sweetly.” According to the complaint, this offensive ogling eventually provoked Goslin’s husband to run away to Paris with Magher. On January 12th, 1909, the New York Supreme Court handed down a verdict awarding Goslin $50,000 in punitive damages: balm to ease her aching heart.

The Goslin v. Magher case was particularly unique, but not because Goslin was suing a third party for the breakdown of her marriage. Rather, that Goslin used a relatively new rhetorical device to build her case: She claimed that Magher was a love pirate. The term might conjure a mental image of balbo beards, flamboyant waistcoats, and finely sharpened cutlasses. But once again, just as the term heart balm had nothing to do with ointment, love pirate also had nothing to do with buccaneering.

Instead, the term was invented by the spurned Chicago housewife Rose Allegretti in 1908. It referred to “the demure, tailor-made little typewriter girl whose habitat is the skyscraper, whose weapon is the two-edged sword of coquetry, whose prize is the human heart.” Much like Una Goslin, Rose Allegretti blamed the dissolution of her marriage on a young stenographer who worked for her husband, Benedetto Allegretti, the Chocolate King of Chicago.

After her divorce, Rose denounced all stenographers as love pirates in the November 1, 1908 edition of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. She sounded a warning to all wives with husbands who employed women in their offices:

Know them. Know them intimately. For the girl in the downtown office is a menace to the home. Whether she be innocent in it or not, she is in a position to become more intimate with your husband than yourself. She is associated with your husband more of the waking hours than you. Every day she can appear to better advantage than you. For she is beset by none of the cares of the housewife and the mother.

In her 1909 book, Why American Marriages Fail, Anna Rogers explained that “a good wife is the immovable shore to her husband’s restless life.” So amongst the cares that troubled someone like Rose Allegretti, there was also the expectation of her constancy and stability. She calls to mind the trope of the waiting woman, perched on the widow’s walk with her eyes scanning the horizon for her wandering, seafaring husband. Would he return to her or would he be led astray? In 1908, The Chicago Inter Ocean warned that heedless husbands might be towed as a prize to “Curtain Lecture Harbor” and “Divorce Court Bay,” or perhaps worst of all, be lured away by the “pretty little heart buccaneers that cruise the business sea of downtown Chicago.”

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Infidelity is almost always a public offense instead of a private one. That’s because infidelity doesn’t just threaten a single relationship. Instead, it threatens a public idea, what the psychotherapist Esther Perel calls “the grand ambition of love.” In the early 20th century, this idea of love referred to a marriage composed of a husband who worked outside of the home to provide financial security, and a wife who was confined to the role of homemaker and mother. In this sense, the woman who chose to step outside of the home and pursue her own financial security was considered to be a double threat to male and female gender roles.

While women who entered public venues without male escorts were once accused of sexual impropriety, the invention of the typewriter in 1867 opened up a new route for single women to enter the public sphere of the white-collar workforce without drawing accusations of sexual misconduct. Thousands of unmarried and young women, whose “nimble fingers” and low salary requirements were considered ideal for typewriting, flooded major cities across the U.S., where they worked as stenographers. By 1910, almost 80 percent of the clerical and typewriting workforce was occupied by women.

The Remington Typewriter Company saw the influx of women as an advertising opportunity, and created a fictionalized Miss Remington, who was “a young, white woman in the typical office worker’s stylish outfit; a dark skirt and simple striped shirtwaist blouse,” as Kim England and Kate Boyer describe “Women’s Work: The Feminization and Shifting Meanings of Clerical Work.” Miss Remington was thought to offer prospective customers, namely men, “something more and better for his money than he had ever before obtained in a writing machine.” Remington was selling not just a typewriter, but a new woman, one who was the feminine ideal of beauty, a composite of thousands of well-educated and independent women flocking to American metropolises, in the words of a Library of Congress exhibition, “to enjoy a more visible and active role in the public arena than women of preceding generations.”

As it would turn out, the fictionalized Miss Remington bore a startling stylistic resemblance to the “love pirates” that proliferated across the pages of newspapers nationwide. In a 1908 edition of The Sayings of Mrs. Solomon: Being the Confessions of the Seven Hundredth Wife, a popular advice column for young women, author Helen Rowland offered some tips for visually identifying the work-oriented heart buccaneers:

There is come among us a feminine thing called the love pirate, which weareth a peek-a-boo shirt waist and manicureth its nails. It liveth on the fruits of its labor and doeth its hair in a curly pompadour. It dwelleth in the downtown office and devoureth the husband therein.

The aesthetic similarities between Miss Remington and the love pirate were about as much of a coincidence as the rhetorical choice to use the word “pirate.” At the height of the post-Victorian Free Love movement, which focused on women’s rights and opposed the legal regulation of romantic relationships including marriage, the use of the term “love pirate” accomplished two things. First, it successfully likened the role of the stenographer to a villain historically defined by violating the law and threatening civilized society. And second, it prompted the government to intervene with a stricter regulation of marriage in the form of the heart balm tort.

As Marilyn French explains in her 1992 book, The War Against Women, the U.S. divorce rate jumped five-fold between 1870 and 1930. Given this context, the heart balm tort represented a legally justified way to save the sanctity of marriage from the sexual wiles of the typewriting love pirate. However, the consistency with which heart balm was invoked against female clerical workers also surfaced a deeper societal anxiety, one that stemmed from conflicting ideas about the function of a woman’s sexuality within the private sphere of marriage and the public sphere of the workplace. Accusations like Rose Allegretti’s claim that stenographers were love pirates assumed that the latter women had used their sexuality to lure honest and innocent husbands away from their wives, or that the wives in question had failed to provide sufficient sexual pleasure within the own marriage to keep their husband’s eyes from wandering (or both). Rarely did anyone ask whether or not the husband was at fault, and even rarer still did anyone answer, “Yes.”

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A century later, the term love pirate has all but disappeared from the public lexicon, and heart balm has been outlawed in all but a handful of states. However, the centuries-old idea that women are responsible for the actions of the men that surround persists. Lurking in this year’s presidential race is the accusation that Hillary Clinton was an “enabler” of her husband’s infidelities, the highest profile of which culminated in Bill Clinton’s infamous claim, “I did not have sexual relations with that woman.”

“That woman,” Monica Lewinsky, explained in a recent essay for Vanity Fair that her affair as a 22-year-old White House intern left her branded “the Dimwit Floozy, the Poor Innocent,” and of course, that woman. While these terms might have lacked the linguistic panache of love pirate, they were still representative of the belief, as the historian Julie Berebitsky describes, that “women were the embodiment of temptation, with the power to destroy or disrupt individual men, male power structures, and the business of getting work done.”

While Bill Clinton hasn’t been president for 15 years, this social anxiety continues to fuel the notion that Hillary is guilty of a dereliction of duty, chiefly the willful shirking of an obligation to prevent a man from engaging in self-destructive behavior.

Perhaps then, what is most interesting about the love pirate and the enabling wife is that they both perpetuate the same mythology: Women are guilty, some of wanting too much and some of not doing enough.

This article appears courtesy of Object Lessons.